Venice 09: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
Posted on Saturday September 5, 2009, 10:42 by Damon Wise
After the initial shock of The Bad Lieutenant (pictured) actually being good, there was a second turn-up for the books yesterday: the festival's first surprise film, one of four, was Werner Herzog's other new film, the heavily anticipated My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?. Produced by David Lynch, whose fingerprints are on every frame, it's an interesting companion piece for Bad Lieutenant, even though it's quite different, rather more experimental and, er, very much like a David Lynch movie. The style is American gothic but with a hyperreal glow, and it starts with a cop (Willem Dafoe) regaling his policing partner with an anecdote about a high-speed chase with a hayseed sheriff. “Sometimes I wonder who's worse,” he muses. “Us or the fuckin' criminals.” Almost instantly a call comes through, and the two are assigned to a homicide: the murder of a woman in San Diego. When they get to the crime scene, they unwittingly encounter the killer (Michael Shannon) straight away: he's the bearded guy outside with the big coffee cup who advises them to “razzle-dazzle 'em”.
What follows is the cop's attempt to make sense of the situation, and it transpires that the wanted man is the murdered women's son, Brad McCallum (Revolutionary Road's Michael Shannon). But they don't have far to look – he only lives over the road – and before long his fiancee (Chloe Sevigny) and friend (Udo Kier) have arrived, giving them an insight into his recent battle with psychiatric illness. To be honest, I was expecting (and wanting) this film to be much more freaky, but Herzog plays it fairly straight with the reconstruction. He fills us in on the wanted man's near-death experience in Peru and reveals that he has been hearing the voice of God ever since, much to the dismay of his loyal fiancee and a trait not noticed at all by his needy, domineering mother (played by Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie, as unsettling a presence as always).
To start with, it's a tough sell. But, over time, Herzog really makes this an interesting situation. In a strange way it reminded me of the cheesy TV series Quantum Leap, in that, if Werner Herzog ever jumped into David Lynch's body he might make a film like this. But that's a trite description, considering what the film actually does. Although it drags in the middle, My Son My Son really gathers (not builds) for a chilling climax that doesn't explain anything at all but very convincingly portrays the damage caused by mental illness and the shocking banality and surrealism of true-life crime. Even now, hours after I saw it, I still can't quite believe that it's not a new, under-the-radar David Lynch movie. But there are scenes that are so Herzog, and so random, that I can't believe those two never worked together before. And on this evidence, I hope they do so again. Soon.